As 2017 makes way for 2018, The Indian Express has asked me to write a New Year card in the form of “an essay about what concerns you and the nation”. Since I am older than most readers, permit me to begin by looking backwards. Twenty-five years ago, Madhav Gadgil and I published This Fissured Land, a book on India’s environmental predicament, past and present. One reviewer, the British historian, E. P. Thompson, said he put down our book “in a state of depression”. Is it “absolutely necessary that so much ecological writing should be so deeply depressing?” he asked. Then he continued: “Maybe it is, and should be. Yet, despite all exploitation and abuse, that vast area of fissured land, from the Himalaya to the tip of the peninsula, is so rich still in so many resources and species that one wonders if one might be permitted a glimmer of utopian encouragement. Might the downward drift not yet be turned around?”
The historian I most admired urged me to be less gloomy about India. However, circumstances soon made that impossible. Some months after This Fissured Land was published, the Babri Masjid was demolished. Hindus and Muslims battled one another across northern and western India. Communal conflict now came to replace ecological degradation as the national problem which this Indian most worried about. The first decade of the 21st century witnessed communal violence against Muslims in Gujarat and against Christians in Kandhamal. In the present decade, violence along communal lines has intensified. There have been episodes of large-scale rioting (in Kokrajhar and in Muzaffarnagar) while acts of aggression against Muslims and Christians are reported on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis. Some political leaders have stayed silent in the face of this violence and hatred; other political leaders have actively aided and encouraged it.
The republic of India is not yet a Hindu Pakistan. But it is closer to being one than at any previous time in its existence. Meanwhile, as religious polarisation deepens, our environmental problems have intensified as well. Our forests are threatened with invasive weeds and declining biodiversity. Our cities have the highest rates of air pollution in the world. Our rivers are badly polluted too and groundwater aquifers are depleting rapidly. The chemical contamination of our soils is colossal. These multiple environmental crises extract a horrific human cost. They threaten our economic future, and perhaps our civilisational future as well.
As 2018 dawns, communal harmony and environmental sustainability are the two major challenges the republic faces. And there are others. Despite two-and-a-half decades of impressive economic growth, there remain deep inequalities of wealth and status. The farming sector is in distress and with anti-globalisation sentiment on the rise, our once thriving services sector is not best placed either. Our social and economic future is further endangered by our troubled, and troublesome, neighbourhood. We witness the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan and Bangladesh and a bellicose nationalism in China.
As the challenges our republic confronts become more complex, our ability to overcome them is weakened by the fragility of our public institutions. Both our major political parties are steeped in medievalism: The BJP through its fusion of religious bigotry with politics and administration and the Congress by always choosing its leader from a single, presumedly “royal” family. And the regional parties are even worse. If not captive to a single person or family, they are astonishingly parochial in their outlook.
Because, as B. R. Ambedkar once put it, “man is vile”, the Constitution mandated a series of institutions to check the venality and corruption of our political class. These institutions, theoretically autonomous and impartial, are faring rather poorly too. Parliament meets erratically, and when it does, prefers shouting and name-calling to constructive argument. The bureaucracy is compromised, the judiciary over-burdened and not entirely free of corruption. And questions have been raised about the neutrality of the Election Commission, the Reserve Bank of India, and even the Armed Forces.
The picture I have outlined is rather bleak. Commentaries on the state-of-the-nation often are. But remembering E.P. Thompson, I cannot end on a gloomy note. When he wrote his review of This Fissured Land, Thompson was in the throes of a terminal illness. Yet so deep was his humanity, that this dying Englishman chastised two Indian scholars for being so negative about their own country.
In the spirit of the dying historian who once scolded me, I must now provide “a glimmer of encouragement”. Amidst all the exploitation and abuse, the corruption and the criminality, I cannot forget that in this vast country of ours, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, there remain resources of hope and inspiration that might yet help turn around the downward drift.
Here are a few. Where some other countries have the election of generals, we still have general elections. While a French scholar once sneeringly referred to Indians as “Homo Hierarchicus”, women and Dalits are increasingly challenging patriarchy and caste prejudice. Where businessmen were once confined to particular privileged families, now thousands of young Indians fired merely with intelligence and audacity are starting their own companies in a hundred different fields. While the electronic media is largely subservient to the government and the ruling party, some newspapers and more websites are providing fresh, original, well-reported and independent-minded perspectives on society and politics. While our public universities are in a state of decay, there remain centres of scientific research that are truly world-class. While some rich Indians build 27-storey homes for their nuclear families, other (equally) rich Indians give away most of their money to alleviate poverty and deprivation.
I am often asked whether I am “optimistic” or “pessimistic” about India. The clever answer would be to say that I am “realistic”. The truth, however, is that I alternate between hope and despair. Some events and certain personalities repel me. Other events and different personalities evoke admiration and assent. Hopefully, 2018 will showcase more of the latter and less of the former.
Happy New Year. Your fellow deshpremi.